J.A. Happ biting his tongue in awkward Yankees situation: Sherman

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J.A. Happ is trying to pitch and bite his tongue when he is not.

He did both well Sunday night. The veteran lefty limited the comatose Red Sox to one run in 5 ²/₃ innings in a 4-2 triumph and then mostly limited his public annoyance at how he is being used — or more aptly — not being used by the Yankees.

Happ was skipped in the last turn around the rotation and you can find legitimate reasons for why that was the case, such as the Yankees wanting to use Gerrit Cole as much as possible and that before Sunday the other starters had shown more than Happ either last season, this season or both.

But there is an elephant the size of Giancarlo Stanton standing on Aaron Judge’s shoulder in the room. Happ has a vesting option for 2021 for $17 million, and the Yankees want nothing to do with paying him that much, especially because they have other free agents such as DJ LeMahieu and Masahiro Tanaka who they likely will prefer to retain.

It is against major league rules to purposefully manipulate usage to keep a player from vesting an option. And the Yankees always have those legitimate reasons to serve as cover in case there is ever a grievance.

“That is a subject that I think I am going to stay away from right now,” Happ said.

J.A. Happ
J.A. Happfor the NY POST

If there were a 162-game season, Happ would have needed either 27 starts or 165 innings in 2020 to trigger the option. There has been a dispute about what Happ’s thresholds will be in this shortened pandemic season, but the lowest is the proration levels for a 60-game season — 10 starts or 61 ¹/₃ innings.

By getting skipped the last time around, Happ made just his third start on Sunday. If he made every turn the rest of the way, there is just enough time to get to 10 starts. But there is a better chance Andy Pettitte starts one game for the 2020 Yankees than Happ starts 10. There will be a time when the Yankees just have to use an opener or want to see what Deivi Garcia or Clarke Schmidt can do.

It will all be couched as a manager decision, which is what Aaron Boone insisted this was.

But Happ conceded he had two conversations in the chasm when he did not start.

“One of them went very well and the second one I didn’t think went very well,” he said. He didn’t want to elaborate much more.

He knows the Yankees have a good thing going this year. They have opened 9-0 at home and 15-6 overall, and being a distraction to teammates he likes and even putting out the whiff of being a malcontent with a tough free-agent market ahead is not a great idea.

He said, “All in due time on that front.” Which, if I were to translate, means there is always time to file a grievance later. For now, Happ can continue to do what he did as the Yankees beat the Red Sox for a ninth straight time, which is make it harder for the Yankees to skip him and — more vitally — more difficult to suggest he should be the one to be skipped.

When asked prior to Sunday’s game if Happ needed to pitch well to stay in the rotation, Boone said he expected the veteran to pitch well. When pressed that it was not an answer to the question, Boone responded that Happ is one of his starters.

Happ then went out and did as Boone predicted — pitched well. He was more aggressive pelting the strike zone. That allowed him to be efficient, needing just 75 pitches to register 17 outs. He worked north and south effectively. He did not dominate — that is not really in his holster these days. But he was exactly what the Yankees hope he could be, which is a quality innings eater at the back of the rotation.

Kevin Pillar homered with two out in the third inning. But Boston never even got another runner into scoring position against Happ, who Boone described as “great” after this effort.

“I always feel better when I attack like that,” Happ explained.

For now, he is limiting those attacks to opposing hitters and the strike zone. There is a season of promise ahead for these Yankees and Happ is veteran enough to recognize both that and what is going on with him.

So for now he will pitch and bite his tongue when he does not. At least for now.

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